Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress

Today’s post is written by David Langbart, an Archivist in the Textual Records Division at the National Archives at College Park.

Memphis Belle TITLE

During World War II, the U.S. government produced propaganda films to rally public support.  Among the most famous of those motion pictures is Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress released in 1944The movie depicts the 25th bombing mission of the aircraft called “Memphis Belle,” piloted by Capt. Robert Morgan, in May 1943.  Having completed 25 missions, the crew returned to the United States to sell war bonds.[1]

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Contrails forming behind a B-17 in flight. From Memphis Belle

The full-color film was produced by Lt. Col. William Wyler working in the First Motion Picture Unit of the Army Air Forces.  It was filmed by U.S. 8th Air Force photographers and combat crew members.   The final production was distributed by Paramount Pictures.  Wyler was a noted Hollywood producer, having won the Academy Award for direction of Mrs. Miniver in 1942.

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Formation of B-17s in flight. From Memphis Belle

Before release, the Motion Picture Division of the Los Angeles office of the Office of War Information (OWI) reviewed the picture to determine its suitability for overseas distribution.  The reviewers prepared the following report (from RG 208 Motion Picture Reviews and Analysis, 1943-1945 (NAID 820119), noting that “The Memphis Belle could make an extremely valuable contribution to the Government’s overseas information program.”

208.567.1
Review of THE MEMPHIS BELLE, n.d., p1, file MEMPHIS BELLE, Entry NC-148-567: Motion Picture Reviews and Analyses (NAID 820119), RG 208: Records of the Office of War Information
208.567.2
Review of THE MEMPHIS BELLE, n.d., p2, file MEMPHIS BELLE, Entry NC-148-567: Motion Picture Reviews and Analyses (NAID 820119), RG 208: Records of the Office of War Information
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Bombs away! From Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress

Upon release of the movie, the Bureau of Motion Pictures in the Office of War Information issued the following one-page “Film Information Sheet” which included a synopsis and recommendation for uses.  It liberally quoted the very positive New York Times review by the noted senior film critic Bosley Crowther but the government writers also called the film “brilliant” and noted “This is a ‘must’ film.”

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Film Information Sheet #74: Memphis Belle; file Bureau of Motion Pictures- Film Information Sheets, General History Files/Records Accumulated by Ralph Block, 1942-1945 (NAID 1011970), RG 208
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Attacking German fighter. From Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress

In recognition of the importance of the movie, in 2001, the Library of Congress added Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress to the National Film Registry.  Under the provisions of the National Film Preservation Act, the Librarian of Congress annually adds 25 “culturally, historically, or aesthetically” significant motion pictures to the list.

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King George VI and Queen Elizabeth greet the air and ground crews after completion of the last mission. From Memphis Belle

For a discussion about the recent restoration of Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress and links to the hours of outtakes taken by Wyler and his team, see this post on our sister-blog The Unwritten Record.


[1] For a superb study of the use by the Allies of commercial motion pictures as a motivating force during World War II, see: M. Todd Bennett, One World, Big Screen: Hollywood, The Allies, and World War II (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012).

One thought on “Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress

  1. Fantastic, David! I saw Memphis Belle in the semi-open air display area in Memphis about 25 years ago and wondered then how long she would survive in that environment. Not too long! For those interested in seeing the restored B-17, here’s a link to a USAF video on her unveiling at the National Museum of the US Air Force just a few weeks ago: https://www.airforcetimes.com/video/2018/05/17/restored-wwii-bomber-memphis-belle-unveiled/. I strongly encourage anyone with the slightest interest in aviation to visit Wright-Patterson to see the USAF Museum. It’s well worth the trek!

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